Once used only by professional athletes, coaches and therapists, foaming rolling is now a familiar, regular practice for people at all levels of fitness. Recent moves forward in knowledge and technology have made foam rollers a popular and affordable product. Increasing numbers of people are reaping the benefits of foam rolling training and recovery techniques.
The aim of this article is to explain why and how to use a foam roller, giving you the option of adding foam rolling to your regular exercise routine.
What is a foam roller?
A foam roller is a piece of exercise equipment primarily used for massaging muscles. They tend to be long and cylindrical, but can come in a number of shapes, sizes, and textures. Foam rollers are used for self massage, relieving tight, sore spots. They are also beneficial in aiding muscle recovery after exercise. The process of relieving tension in tight muscles by rolling over and stretching them is known as myofascial release.
How does a foam roller work?
It works by applying pressure (from body weight) to specific spots on your body. Improving muscle recovery and returning them to normal function. Normal function is when muscles are elastic, healthy and ready to perform instantly at any time.
The main way this is done is through myofascial release. Fascia is soft connective tissue providing support and protection to muscles. Fascia can be restricted through trauma, inactivity and overuse. It consequently becomes inflamed and in bad cases the connective tissue thickens. This results in pain, discomfort and further inflammation.
These points are known as trigger points or knots. They will refer pain, so when pressure is applied pain is felt or radiated to another area as well.
By rolling the foam roller over each muscle group it is possible to detect tender areas that would benefit from release. Maintaining the pressure from the weight of the body and holding the position for up to 60 seconds begins to break down the thickened tissue.
Rolling over muscles while applying force also helps to elongate tight muscles. When muscles are sore they protect themselves by tightening to stop you over-using them again. A foam roller will relieve this tightness by pushing muscles back out to their natural length.
When rolling over tight and sore muscles you will feel pain or discomfort. It’s like the feeling from a deep stretch, it should be uncomfortable but not unbearable. Once it is finished it should start to feel better.
Myofascial release in a little more detail
Deep compression breaks up and relaxes tight muscles and the adhesion formed between muscle layers and surrounding tissue. It is as if you are tenderising your muscles! In a correct state they should feel soft and supple. Muscles that are not in this condition can be painful to move and lose flexibility.
Deep compression with myofascial release allows normal blood flow to return and restore healthy tissue. The body wants to be strong and healthy, but sometimes it needs a little external assistance to achieve optimal muscle and tissue health.
But it hurts – surely it can’t be good for you?
No pain no gain? Many people understand seeing a masseuse for a deep tissue massage will do you good. Even if it is painful while they work out the knots in your muscles. Self myofascial release, foam rolling, is just giving a deep tissue massage to yourself (at a fraction of the price).
You are in control of the recovery and healing process because you can feel and react to exactly what is happening with your muscles. You can be precise with the areas you roll over, and stop whenever the discomfort becomes too much.
Relieving trigger points restores pain free, correct movement patterns, ultimately leading to better performance. Stretching alone is often not enough to relieve tight muscles. This is why foam rollers have become so popular on the mass market. Carrying out a stretch elongates the whole of a muscle. Which is helpful for recovery, but it cannot focus on one specific point (knot) in the way that foam rolling can.
What causes tight muscles and trigger points?
Similar contributing factors cause both tight muscles and trigger points. These include training factors such as flexibility, over-training, posture and movement patterns, as well as lifestyle issues like hydration, nutrition, stress and rest. Our bodies have evolved to cope with what life throws at us. However we can push it too far with the factors outlined above, at which point we need to take corrective action.
This is when we need assistance from recovery techniques like myofascial release, or in extreme cases professional help.
How do you detect trigger points?
Trigger points and tight muscles are found with self exploration. We’ll explain how next:
Foam rolling applies moderate pressure to a specific muscle or muscle group through a combination of body weight and the foam roller. Roll slowly at a few centimetres per second. Once an area that is tight or painful is detected, pause and relax as much as possible for 5 seconds. The muscle will slowly start to release (you will feel this), and after 30 seconds or so pain and discomfort will reduce.
When a spot is too painful to apply direct pressure, apply pressure to the surrounding area by shifting the roller. Work to slowly loosen the entire area and the painful spot will follow. This is not a pain tolerance test, the objective is to restore healthy muscles. Other objects can be used, a tennis ball is great if you have a particularly hard spot to reach with a roller.
Never roll and joint or a bone. Avoid rolling the lower back and neck, refer these to a professional as they require more attention.
What happens after foam rolling?
You should feel as if your muscles have been worked and released, you may be sore the following day. It is important not to push yourself to excessive soreness.
Make sure you get proper sleep/rest, eat healthy and drink plenty of water. This flushes your system and fuels the muscle effectively. Allow a day or two before focusing on the same muscle/muscle group again.
Foam rolling technique
Rather than trying to list and explain the many different rolling exercises for each body part it’s much simpler to understand by watching the video below.
The wrap up
The aim of this article was to explain why and how foam rolling can form part of your exercise recovery program. Any questions then drop them in the comment box below. Hope you enjoyed!
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